The final presidential debate of the 2016 general election may have seemed to many like the sixth or seventh staged confrontation between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Sitting for more than 17,000 words without a car chase or explosion is a challenge for most Americans today, even if it involves making an informed commander-in-chief selection for the 1,461 days of the 45th president’s term.
It was, however, just the third – and blessedly final – presidential debate as millions early-vote and Nov. 8 nears. It was definitely the best debate, thanks to the polished moderator. You can watch all of this cycle’s general election debates in the C-SPAN Video Library, or read the transcripts.
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Televised debates have become a quadrennial fixture of American politics since 1960. They are, like all TV, staged productions that stress appearance over substance and have virtually nothing to do with what a president actually does. They allow viewers to visually evaluate candidates’ appearance, body language, and ability to call up memorized details and applause lines.
In that sense presidential debates resemble reality TV, which should have given reality-celebrity Trump a leg up. He was awful in the first debate last month, wasting his priceless time before more than 84 million people playing defense against Clinton’s barrage of criticism.
Trump was better in St. Louis and even better in Las Vegas where he launched numerous attacks against Clinton for her State Department management, her record of lying, the email scandal, her ties to President Barack Obama and foreign policy failures.
Indeed, Trump made a better case for why Clinton should not be president than he did for why he should be in the White House.
He matched Clinton pivot for pivot. When he went after her for granting special access as secretary to Clinton Foundation donors, she quickly and too obviously pivoted off those unseemly details to the organization’s work on AIDS.
Which has nothing to do with uranium sales to Russia or helping Clinton cronies make money off Haiti disasters. But deflection was the point. Trump was apparently unprepared to press the issue further.
When she hit Trump on groping allegations, he denied them again and plunged into her illegal destruction of 30,000 emails after a congressional order to preserve them.
Finally, Trump stuck her with the Obamacare disaster with its exploding premiums, vowing to repeal and replace. She wants to fix it. Unsaid was that either option depends on down-ballot congressional races.
Stunningly, what went totally unmentioned was the word “Benghazi,” the 2012 deaths of four Americans, lack of rescue, poor security and the phony anti-Muslim video cover story peddled by Clinton.
Shocking revelations of WikiLeaks’ thousands of hacked Clinton emails also went unmentioned, although Trump did slip in that her staff said bad things about their boss. As did the nation’s ailing public education system that has failed millions of urban residents and union opposition to reforms was another stealth issue.
“Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace was an impressive interrogator, posing hard, clear questions on a wide variety of issues to each candidate, then following up when necessary.
Wallace: “Secretary Clinton, I want to explore how far you believe the right to abortion goes. You have been quoted as saying that the fetus has no constitutional rights. You also voted against a ban on late-term, partial-birth abortions. Why?”
On immigration: “Mr. Trump, you want to build a wall. … Secretary Clinton, you have offered no specific plan for how you want to secure our southern border. … Mr. Trump, you are calling for major deportations. … Secretary Clinton, you say within your first 100 days as president you’re going to offer a package that includes a pathway to citizenship. … The question really, is, why are you right and your opponent wrong?”
The night’s big headline came from Trump’s response about accepting election results, win or lose. “I will look at it at the time,” the billionaire said.
This is a standard bid by the real estate magnate for leverage and to keep his fervent followers motivated to turn out despite discouraging indicators. Remember, last year in a primary debate Trump declined to promise to support the GOP nominee, win or lose.
Of course, he came around later to sign the meaningless pledge after dominating numerous news cycles and soaring in polls. And last week he quickly softened his words.
But this was a needless fourth-quarter fumble handing news media an alternate news story having nothing to do with the populist stands the Republican must disseminate to broaden his support or at least stanch its decline in recent polls.
Largely forgotten in the trumped up outrage since Wednesday night’s debate is the fact that in 2000 Al Gore vowed to abide by the people’s will. On election night he conceded victory to Gov. George W. Bush, then rescinded his concession hours later, then challenged Florida’s results all the way to the Supreme Court.
Gore didn’t accept his loss until almost mid-December. Long after, supporters grumbled about the election theft.
Does all of this matter in the less-than-titanic struggle between the two least-liked, most distrusted presidential candidates in modern history? Either way really the winner is a loser in a country that seems so fundamentally divided, discouraged and angry.
Clinton appears to be building a lead over Trump in most polls. All the tightly scripted candidate needed was a workmanlike debate performance to continue her return to the White House with hubby Bill. In a fundraising email minutes after the debate, Obama hailed her as “brilliant, resilient and compassionate.”
Trump needed a spectacular performance. He delivered a good one.
Andrew Malcolm began writing on U.S. politics in 1968. Follow him on Twitter @AHMalcolm. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.